The EPA and Mining Jobs

In an op-ed in The Hill titled "Enviro elitists keep America unemployed," Rick Manning of Americans for Limited Government argues that one factor behind the anemic jobs picture is the onerous regulatory environment.

In an op-ed in The Hill titled “Enviro elitists keep America unemployed,” Rick Manning of Americans for Limited Government argues that one factor behind the anemic jobs picture is the onerous regulatory environment. He points to a specific case:

In Alaska, one of the most significant finds of copper, gold and molybdenum (hardens steel) in U.S. history was discovered. Yet almost a decade later — and more than $125 million of environmental and cultural studies later — the Pebble Mine is still being subjected to Environmental Protection Agency review. A review that is at best likely to demand that tens of millions more dollars be spent for additional studies encompassing an area roughly equal to the states of Maryland and New Jersey combined. All to open one mine and put 2,000 miners to work.

To make matters worse, the ore won’t be processed in the U.S., because our domestic copper smelting capacity has been cut by about 60 percent in the past 20 years. More jobs lost largely on the altar of environmental regulation.

This is just one of myriad examples of how our nation’s obsession with litigation and environmental regulation has turned us into a place where employers cannot afford to create jobs. It is cheaper and more profitable to do it elsewhere.

It’s reasonable enough to have some oversight to ensure that mining operations don’t create tremendous negative externalities–or at least ensure that those which can’t be avoided are paid for by those seeking to make a profit. But a system that requires job creators to spend tens of millions of dollars and wait more than a decade in hopes of getting a permit to start work is one that’s naturally going to dissuade a lot of job creation.

Mining is particularly problematic in this regard because it’s an intrusive activity that poses real risk to the environment. But, surely we can balance those risks without killing a vital industry that provides high paying jobs?

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Quick Takes,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    This article is full of shit.

    Northern Dynasty hasn’t even applied for permits to start digging the mine yet. As of last year, they were still trying to determine if mining was economically feasible because of the location of the minerals and the difficulty of getting to them, and they’re STILL reviewing it.

    The EPA review began in 2010 at the behest of local fisheries who were concerned about the impact of the mine’s plan to dump their waste in the local watershed, threatening the salmon populations – not environmentalists. These are fishermen trying to make sure the mine doesn’t impact their livelihood. The EPA review is expected to be complete before the end of the year.

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Also worth noting – public opinion polls in Alaska are consistently, overwhelmingly opposed to it. Considering that the project is on public land, and a majority of the public opposes the project, shouldn’t that have some weight, too?

  3. Chad S says:

    Mining isn’t manpower intensive like it used to be. The largest open pit in the US only employs 1800-2500 people. I don’t see how clamping down on mining due to deaths that could have been preventing is holding back the economy or the employment rate.

    As for the fisheries: letting the industry go unchecked has led to massive decline in fish stocks on the west coast. The crab and salmon industries are in deep trouble due to this.

  4. James Joyner says:


    The public lands argument is hard to get excited about in Alaska, which is practically ALL public land. I gather Don Young and other Members of Congress from the state are gung ho for the project.

    If it’s true that they started work on this years ago but haven’t yet actually applied to mining rights, I’d have to agree that’s weird–especially since they’re apparently taking this fight to the public.

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    The public lands argument is hard to get excited about in Alaska, which is practically ALL public land.

    Sure, but I think the opinion of the population of Alaska ought to have some weight in the discussion – a majority of Alaskans oppose the mine, and something like 70% of the local residents do. It’s not like this is being blocked by some fringe group who hates the economy. It’s being challenged by the people on the ground who are most aware of the issues.

    And like I said, this hasn’t been stuck in regulatory limbo for 10 years – the review is been ongoing for less than a year, and will be done by year’s end. Since this is public land, there’s time built in for public comment and debate.

    Moreover, the company being partnered with to do the mining, Anglo-American, has an absolutely horrid environmental track record. They’ve ruined watersheds from Nevada to South Africa.

    The issues here are way more nuanced than Manning is making them out to be. Fresh water and local industry are at risk if the environmental engineering isn’t done properly.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    This seems like pretty substantial activity that would garner a lot of regulatory activity, so I don’t think it’s the poster-child for job losses. I do think there are a lot more lost job opportunities that are lost due to the reality that new industrial facilities will generally take several years to get permitted after the application is filed.

    (I scoff every time I see Rachel Maddow standing in front of the Hoover dam, preaching her belief that the country can think this big again. How many years, nay how many decades, would it take to get that project permitted today?)

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    Well, if a paid flack says it’s true, it obviously must be.

  8. Loviatar says:


    James did his daily job for the rightwing wurlizer, he gave a BS story legs, so leave him alone.

    Centrist / Moderate / Independent voter: If James Joyner a “reasonable conservative” is concerned maybe we should also be concerned.

  9. Moosebreath says:

    “The issues here are way more nuanced than Manning is making them out to be.”

    A libertarian who loses sight of nuance in making a case for less government. Who would have thunk it?

  10. PD Shaw says:

    Alex, the op-ed clearly has the whine meter up, but it looks like they do have permits pending:

    In 2006, NDM submitted eleven permit applications to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Six of these applications sought to appropriate surface or groundwater from the North and South Forks of the Koktuli River and from Upper Talarik Creek. The other five applications sought permits to build five massive, earthen-fill dams or embankments to contain waste from the mine.

    Although NDM later requested that DNR delay adjudicating the applications, they provide insight into NDM’s development plans

    Law Review Article

    They also look like their in litigation concerning past exploration and water use permits.

    To me none of this is suprising given the size of the project and the problems with analyzing issues involving complex eco-systems.

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    PD –

    Oh, good catch. I was focused on the mine qua mine, not the supporting structures.

    But yeah, for a project of this size, it’s going to take awhile. Not just for the permit and planning review, but the planning, period.

    And the past decade has seen a lot more research into how mining and other activities affect the water table, too.

    Thanks for that.